Middle school class focuses on healthy food habits
by Mary Ann Ebner
Sparkling counter tops and polished floors may project the image of a clean kitchen, but what’s on the menu for ninth period middle school cooking class turns out the true results on clean and healthy cooking in the kitchen at the Garrison School.
Kitchen-wise kids rush through their classroom door of the cafeteria kitchen and reach for the soap and water. Washing hands and rinsing away germs marks the first step in their class of basic cooking techniques, one of the elective courses available to seventh and grade students and made possible in part through a grant from the Garrison Children’s Education Fund. The students, a mix of boys and girls, are not only taking the course to learn basic cooking skills, but to prepare a wide range of healthy and nutritious foods using whole, fresh ingredients.
Seventh grader Juliette Raynaud likes the challenge and doesn’t mind the heat in the school kitchen. She pulls on an apron and stands at the ready to mix it up with herbs and spices.
“I wanted to sign up for this class because we use organic foods and we learn to substitute for ingredients that we may not have,” Raynaud said. “I’ve learned a lot and we make a lot of healthy food.”
With inspiration and guidance from their teacher, Laurie Gershgorn of Cortlandt Manor, members of the cooking class are learning to focus on the importance of good nutrition, meal planning, and the seasonal food calendar. Though children in Garrison benefit from living in the verdant Hudson Valley, they are not immune to the temptations of pre-packaged food and exposure to sugary drinks and junk food.
“It’s not a hard concept,” Gershgorn said, “but it has to keep being repeated that eating out of a box or a can or preheated from a package is keeping America from eating healthy. The class teaches the children to eat foods closest to their original form, and they know that it tastes good, and they know how their bodies use it and absorb it.”
The cooking class, also promoted as “Learn to cook for a strong body and mind,” is offered once a week after the school cafeteria kitchen closes for the day. Garrison School principal Stephanie Impellittiere said the class aligns with the school’s endeavors to keep all students healthy and well.
“Healthy cooking was an offshoot of the school’s wellness program,” Impellittiere said, “and the students learn to make good choices.”
The healthy cooking class emphasizes not only making good nutritional choices, but making wise choices for their greater environment. Gershgorn brings enthusiasm and energy to the classroom when she shares her kitchen counter intelligence, and her kitchen curriculum includes lessons on the history of foods, how to read and write a recipe, and how to identify sustainable food sources.
“It’s about the air, the water, the soil, and the animals,” Gershgorn said. “We discuss how you shop and they see that I bring in things that are not in packages. I try to bring the most wholesome ingredients. It’s not only better for them, but better for the earth.”
Gershgorn herself is a vegan, and well acquainted with the nutritious preparation of an extensive food repertoire. She shares her knowledge of healthy food as a local culinary professional, and appreciates the educational opportunity to kindle a passion for healthy cooking with her young students.
On a warm spring afternoon, Gershgorn’s students shout out one question when they arrive in the kitchen and prepare to chop, measure, and mix.
“What are we cooking today?” they all cheerfully ask with curiosity. The day’s menu includes guacamole and heart healthy cookies, and the class members take their places quickly. If they fail to finish their assignments, they sacrifice the rewards – tasting and eating their nutritious creations.
Eighth grader Danny Heitmann thinks he has a pretty good appetite, and he’s discovered a range of new tastes in the class. Heitmann helped mash and mix simple ingredients for guacamole, and spooned a sample onto a plate to test the finished product. One spoonful wasn’t enough. He was happy to sample a second tasting.
“I like guacamole,” Heitmann said. “This is my first time making it, and my first time trying it.”
As Gershgorn breaks down barriers that can keep kids from learning the life skills of preparing healthy food, she elaborates on the importance of simplicity. With a few healthy ingredients, mixing bowls, a heat source, and a willingness to learn, her students can build and maintain strong minds and bodies by starting in the kitchen classroom.
“The mission is for the kids to go beyond the cooking classes, and beyond the conventional,” Gershorn said. “And once they have the basic techniques down, they can build from there.”